North Charleston had one of the highest murder rates in the country in the first half of 2016, outpacing Chicago, Atlanta and other large cities that also saw significant spikes in killings, according to new preliminary figures from the FBI.
South Carolina's third-largest city recorded 15 homicides in the first six months of last year, giving North Charleston the eighth-highest murder rate in the nation among cities with 100,000 or more people, a Post and Courier analysis of the FBI numbers found.
That's more than triple the four murders recorded in the city during the same time span the previous year. And that relentless pace of killings would continue through the remainder of the year, leaving North Charleston with 32 homicides by the end of the 2016 — the city's deadliest year on record.
The deadly toll came amid a 5 percent rise in violent crime nationally in the first half of 2016, when compared with the same time period in the preceding year, the FBI reported. Murders were up 5 percent, and the number of assaults, rapes and robberies rose as well. The South had the biggest jump in murders, posting a nearly 8 percent increase.
While a full picture of last year's crime numbers won't be available until later in 2017, early reports from around the country indicate North Charleston was hardly alone in its plight. Indianapolis, Baltimore and Las Vegas were among cities reporting record numbers of homicides in 2016, and Chicago, with 762 killings, recorded its deadliest year in nearly two decades.
North Charleston officials made note of those travails as they pleaded with residents to join in the fight to drive down violent crime within the city's borders. Their comments came Friday just hours after the city's second homicide of 2017: a fatal shooting on Commander Road that left a 30-year-old man dead.
"Yes, we had an increase in murders in North Charleston last year, as did many major cities across the country," North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers said in a prepared statement. "We continue to stress that we need our 110,000 citizens to partner with us. It's going to take the entire community, families, and churches to solve this problem, it's not something that local government can solve alone."
North Charleston alone accounted for 42 percent of the Lowcountry's 77 slayings last year, though it's home to only 15 percent of the population. City officials have theorized that the bloody year had something to do with police backing down from aggressive patrols of high-crime areas, where officers stopped motorists for minor traffic violations in hopes of unearthing larger problems.
The number of traffic stops waned after Driggers took over as chief in 2013. They plummeted further after Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, was fatally shot while running away from a struggle with patrolman Michael Slager following a traffic stop in April 2015. Slager faces a state murder charge and a pending federal trial on civil rights charges.
North Charleston City Councilman Michael Brown represents the area where the man was shot and killed early Friday. He said a number of factors have driven homicides in the city, including too many guns on the streets and a mindset among some that problems can be solved by shooting. These people need to learn other ways to dealing with disagreements. "That will take the community, the family and a spiritual part," he said.
Fellow Councilman Ron Brinson agreed that ready access to guns is a key issue, particularly among young people. He said he is also concerned about how changes in policing methods may relate to rising crime rates in Chicago, North Charleston and other cities around the county as law enforcement attempts to balance civil liberty concerns with the need to ensure public safety.
"Municipalities all over the country are trying to calibrate this," he said.
Brinson said it's essential that law enforcement get input from "policed" communities, and he is hopeful that his city's new citizens advisory commission on police operations will be "an ongoing conduit for the dialogue that is clearly needed." That commission should be in an organizational mode by early March, he said.
Robert Kaminski, associate professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said any homicide is troubling, but given the relatively small number of homicides in North Charleston and the fluctuating nature of these statistics it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from last year's jump in killings. It could be an aberration or not. But more data over consecutive years would be needed before someone could call this a sign of a troubling trend, he said.
"It is concerning but it doesn't mean that it will continue," he said. "It doesn't mean that it is a trend."
The only other South Carolina cities to meet the population threshold to be included in the FBI report were Charleston and Columbia. Columbia remained essentially flat — five homicides in the first six months of 2016 compared with four during the same period in 2015. Charleston showed a marked drop over that span, six compared with 13 the previous year. But that 2015 number was itself an aberration, as it included the nine people killed in the Emanuel AME Church massacre.